José Saramago’s Tale of the Unknown Island

José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, illustrated by Peter Sís 1999)

This is one of those tiny, beautifully designed books that sit at the front of bookshelves offering themselves as last-minute birthday gifts. At least, that’s how I think it came to be sitting on my to-be-read bookshelf for years, possibly decades. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but I’m glad they did.

José Saramago published this very short, parable-like story in 1997 in Portuguese with the title O conto da ilha desconhecida. This version, translated into crystal clear fairy-tale English by Margaret Jill Costa and illustrated by the brilliant children’s illustrator Peter Sís, followed two years later.

In 2017 the story was adapted for the stage by Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater and performed at the Gate theatre in London with the title The Unknown Island (the Guardian‘s enthusiastic review here).

It’s not a children’s book, but it builds on conventions of children’s literature. A man appears at a gate of the king’s castle and asks for a boat. He refuses to be sent away, and the story goes from there. He wants the boat in order to set sail to find the unknown island. Everyone, from the king to the cleaning lady, tells him that there are no more unknown islands, but he persists, first in his request and then, when (not a spoiler really) the king gives him a boat, in persuading other people to help on the quest.

It’s a parable about creativity, or perhaps about scientific enquiry. Certainly it resonates against the kinds of things that reactionary politicians say regularly about university research grants (as in this example from almost exactly a year ago). But it twists and turns, slipping out from under such neat encapsulations. Naive readers like me will be surprised and delighted by how it turns out.

The book was perfect for reading in the sauna, and I read it there in two sessions, both of them with quite a lot of chat eating into potential reading time. Sadly the glue holding my beautiful little book together couldn’t withstand the heat, so now I need to handle it with great care.

For a closer look, I can’t take a snapshot of page 75*, because there are only 51 pages. Assuming that page 75 is usually about a fifth of the way through a novel, I’ll focus instead on pages 10 and 11. Here they are, heat damage and all, at the beginning of the king’s encounter with the man who wants a boat:

Peter Sís’s compass sits in the middle of the left hand page, silently endorsing the man who wants a boat. All his illustrations have a similar simplicity of line, and make similar luxurious use of white space, though some of them, like the cover image above, have a weird, surrealist quality.

This is early in the book. The king has condescended to meet the man at the door for petitions, a door he rarely visits in person, and his discomfort manifests as awkwardness in the only chair available, which belongs to the cleaning woman (who is to feature prominently in the rest of the story).

Characteristically, the narrative isn’t broken up with a paragraph for each speaker, and sometimes the transition from one speaker to another doesn’t even merit a full stop. Commas will do, suggesting that we don’t need to pause over the king’s questions, because the man will answer them easily – whether he is indeed ‘one of those utter madmen’ or not. (He’s not. But though his insistence that unknown islands still exist is impeccably logical, he’s not what any conservative arts fund would consider a sound prospect either.) So on the one hand there’s a fine, childlike simplicity to the narrative, but on the other there’s an unsettling edge to its presentation. That unsettling quality becomes more marked as the story progresses.

José Saramago received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The press release accompanying the announcement described him as a writer ‘who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality’. This little book with its hugely resonant tale is my excellent introduction to his riting.


* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

One response to “José Saramago’s Tale of the Unknown Island

  1. I’ve never heard of this one, though I have a few unread Saramagos on the TBR. It sounds beautiful… but then everything JS wrote, is.

    Liked by 1 person

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